Composting for Better Soil
Yup. That's me.
I'll admit it. I am kinda obsessed with dirt. It is the foundation of a successful garden (if you're not growing hydroponically, of course). Not to mention, the many ways we benefit from playing in it! Studies have even shown that exposure to soil can better our health, from enhancing our immune systems to improving mental health.
So, why not make your own dirt? You'll save money, reduce your environmental footprint, and possibly even enjoy better mental and physical health! Plus it is super easy. We'll show you how and introduce you to some composting techniques you may have never heard of before! But first, the basics.
In this article:
1. The Dirt on Composting: What is it anyway?
2. Why Bother?: The reasons why every gardener should be composting
3. Compost 101: From compost bins to ingredients, how to compost successfully
4. Alternative Composting Methods: Vermicomposting and Bokashi
The Dirt on Composting
Composting is the simple act of nurturing decaying plant matter into soil. From the leaves you rake up to your apple cores and banana peels, anything that came from a plant can be collected to serve out another purpose: enriching your garden soil.
The process happens in nature all of the time. When leaves fall from trees, they compost naturally on the forest floor. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi go to work breaking down the matter as they consume it.
When we collect kitchen scraps, we are utilizing the same process of decomposition. The compost bin allows us to retain the end product and add it to our garden.
The benefits of composting are many.
- More Productive Soil: As they grow, plants utilize nutrients from the soil to aid their growth and fruit production. Composting adds richness to the soil in the form of carbon, nitrogen, and minerals. In addition, it makes for a better growing medium, balancing it for proper drainage and moisture retention. Soil that is rocky or full of clay needs this kind of organic matter to make it habitable for plants.
- Cost Effective: Sure you could purchase bagged compost every year to amend you soil (and you should if you aren't making your own), but that will certainly have you spending more money on your garden!
- Environmentally Friendly:
- Here in the US, it is estimated that each person produces approximately 4.5lbs of trash per day. This leads to over 260 million tons of garbage generated annually in this country. Where is all of that going to go?! If each of us disposed of our food and lawn waste in our own compost piles, these statistics would certainly improve.
- The composting process sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. This is a good thing on a planet where the build up of carbon dioxide is threatening to change life as we know it. If you want to geek out with me, take a look at this paper.
- By not purchasing bagged soil products, you are reducing greenhouse admissions produced during the packaging and shipping of commercial compost. You are also reducing emissions generated by the processing of your household garbage!
The process is simple. You don't really need anything special to begin. Some folks designate a corner of the yard to an open compost heap and just toss their daily food scraps onto the pile. We prefer to compost in a closed container, so I will walk you through that process.
- Acquire two large containers with lids. Trash cans or Rubbermade boxes work just fine. We use large metal trashcans so that animals cannot chew through the walls. There are also a number of fabulous bins designed just for composting. With our large family, we fill up one container before it is done composting. Having a second one allows us to continue composting new material while the other one finishes. I've found that these handy magnets help in directing folks where to toss the new scraps.
- Drill or punch holes in the bottom and sides of the container. If your compost bin is going to be outside, there should be holes every 6-12 inches. This allows water to drain and air to circulate. Oh, and that water that drains out? It's called "compost tea" and you can collect it in a pan under the bin to use as fertilizer.
- Place some carbon-rich material in the bottom. First add some dry organic matter such as brown leaves, straw, shredded cardboard, or wood chips.
- Throw in your scraps. Collect kitchen scraps in a bowl, Tupperware container, or compost crock and add them to the compost bin. If you live in an apartment, you could actually compost indoors. Just make sure to cover this layer of food waste with soil to keep the smell down and fruit flies away.
- Water as needed. Compost should be moist, but not drenched.
- Add dry material. Occasionally throw in some more shredded leaves, sawdust, newspaper, etc. We add the used wood shavings from our henhouse. If ever your compost gets too wet, adding dry carbon-rich material will help balance it.
- Give it a stir. Using a pitchfork, stake, or handy compost aerating tool, mix the contents of your compost bin. We usually do this once a week or so.
Keep these things in mind as you go.
- Ingredients: Anything that came from a plant! Keep the animal products (except egg shells) in your compost to a minimum. Meat and bones require a higher temperature of anaerobic decomposition that might be tricky to achieve in your back yard pile. Some folks believe that meat might also attract varmints.
- Moisture: Compost should be neither too wet or too dry. Just make sure it stays damp, but not sopping wet.
- Aeration: The type of bacteria that are working for you are aerobic, meaning they require oxygen. Giving your compost pile a good stir now and then with a pitchfork keeps it from becoming anoxic. When this occurs, the compost heap does not have enough oxygen and can become stinky.
- Temperature: The decomposition process gives off heat, so monitoring the compost pile's temperature is a good way to check on its progress. You can do this simply by grabbing a scoop from the center and feeling it or by inserting a compost thermometer. If the reading is between 90-140°, you're in business. Now, during the winter when bacteria are not as active, decomposition slows down. Maintaining a larger compost heap during this time will help to retain warmth for faster results.
Alternative Composting Methods
Aside from the traditional compost pile, there are a few unique ways of turning your kitchen waste into garden soil.
This is just a technical way of saying "worm composting". Red wrigglers go to work munching on your leftovers while producing much-desired worm castings (poop). The castings are an odorless, rich soil amendment that some companies even sell for profit! But all you need is a shallow, waterproof box or vermicompost bin lined with shredded newspaper. Continue to alternate layers of food scraps and dry material, making sure the material is damp but not wet. Worms need air, darkness, moisture, and warmth to thrive.
Did you know you can ferment your food waste, including meat and dairy products? This anaerobic method of composting utilizes inoculated bran to get the process going. Just mix it with your scraps, press it into a bucket, layer a bit more bran on top, and set it aside for 10-12 days. During that time, all you need to do is pour off the liquid that is a byproduct of the process. A bucket with a spigot at the bottom makes this easy. After a couple of weeks, you can bury the fermented scraps (also called "precompost") in your garden or pots - just make sure they are not right next to the plants' roots. Precompost is considered "hot" because it is acidic, but after a week or two in the ground, it should be fine.
In a Nutshell
If you have a serious interest in your garden's success, composting is a no-brainer. It is easy, inexpensive, and rewarding. Next time you go to scrape your plate into the trash, pause for a moment. Believe it or not, that apple core has a second life.